ST. GEORGE — The St. George Police Department released a video of a wallet and other items being taken from the shopping cart of an unsuspecting shopper, just one type of criminal activity that has escalated at a alarming rate across the city.

Stock image | Photo by Iprogressman/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

St. George law enforcement has seen a recent uptick in the number of thefts involving crime groups that are passing through and exploiting the public in the area. And taking whatever they can in the process.

St. George Police Officer Tiffany Mitchell told St. George News these theft groups are hitting the area “at an alarming rate,” and the number of reports does not appear to be going down anytime soon.

“People need to wake up and realize that this is taking place right in front of them,” Mitchell said.

Taking an active role in protecting one’s property is the first step to addressing the problem, since these are crimes of opportunity, Mitchell said. An unsuspecting target can be “easy pickings” for these groups of thieves that travel through Southern Utah with one goal in mind.

Today’s thieves are deploying a variety of techniques to get what they’re after, including distraction and sleight of hand, which has led the responding officers to suspect the crimes “are not merely one-offs, but are part of a larger organization.”

The video posted on the department’s Facebook page provides a glimpse into how these groups operate. It shows a man reaching into a customer’s purse multiple times, while a woman in shorts and a face mask helps to distract the shopper, giving her male counterpart ample time to rummage through the shopper’s purse.

The video also shows as shoppers continue to walk by, without even noticing the theft, which also speaks to the importance of people being observant to their surroundings and looking out for one another.

“It only takes a second of distraction to become a victim of a crime,” the social media post stated.

Three suspects in alleged theft group hits St. George as featured by the St. George Police Department on social media on Jan. 4, 2024 | Photos courtesy of the St. George Police Department, St. George News

The police department is urging the public to maintain situational awareness and not leave their valuables in plain sight, such as leaving a purse or wallet in a shopping cart, particularly a purse that is left open.

“Or just don’t leave a purse or wallet in the cart at all,” Mitchell said.

The department has issued a series of warnings to protect the community from this type of criminal activity, including one posted on Jan. 14 alerting citizens to a crime trio that reportedly took the wallets of two different victims and racked up thousands of dollars in charges at Target and Smiths.

Two days before, on Jan. 12, the department issued another public service alert cautioning the public to never leave valuables unattended — even for a few seconds.

At this point, Mitchell said, “We are doing more than urging, we are sounding the alarm as the number of thefts continue to rise. We can do better.”

2022 file photo for illustrative purposes only of St. George Police officers at Smith’s in St. George, Utah, March 27, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

While the public cannot control what others do, they can control their own actions and help deter crime by keeping valuables secure and out of the reach, she added.

In addition to the rise in theft calls, the department is also seeing an upward trend in scam reports, particularly among the elderly who are most vulnerable to this type of criminal activity. Fraudsters typically use urgency and fear to secure payments in these scams.

Anytime a person calls demanding payment using a gift card or a wire transfer should set off alarm bells that the call is a scam. Mitchell said those who think they are a victim to suspicious activity can call the police department, since more often than not it is the citizens who are key in thwarting criminal activity.

This report is based on statements from court records, police or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.

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